Credit: IFFR
by Morris Yang Film

Freaks vs. The Reich — Gabriele Mainetti

April 28, 2023

The premise is hit-or-miss: imagine a circus troupe in the vein of the Fantastic Four, but situated smack in the middle of Nazi-infested Rome, witnesses to unenviable persecution but themselves stuck in an equally unenviable position vis-à-vis societal opinion. Do freak shows come under the category of undesirables? Are they sanctioned to perform for entertainment, odd enough to amuse and inspire liberal pity without sacrificing the idea of human purity undergirding fascist regimes? Or has the clown, once clowned around the ring, divested himself of ideological utility, and hence can only occupy a liminal, temporary presence within the larger teleological order? All valid questions, and indeed terribly riveting ones, but when you cast a humorous light over the shadows of tyranny the result tends to forgo the hard-earned pathos of either. And Freaks vs. The Reich, to this reviewer’s dismay, misses the mark almost entirely. It’s pop spectacle par excellence, yet another historical comedy played for laughs, charged with the irresponsible task of manufacturing tweeness out of tragedy.

Originally slated for release in 2020, Gabriele Mainetti’s sophomore feature follows a ragtag group of misfits as they re-orientate themselves around a world with newfound hatred for them: Matilde (Aurora Giovinazzo), a young girl untouchable by virtue of her powers of electrocution; Cencio (Pietro Castellitto), a lithe albino who can manipulate insects; Fulvio (Claudio Santamaria), a stocky, excessively hairy man; and Mario (Giancarlo Martini), a chronically masturbating dwarf gifted with a huge cock and the ability to bend metal. Their ringleader, a Jew named Israel (Giorgio Tirabassi), gets rounded up for deportation, and so the four embark on simultaneous, sometimes conflicting missions: to rescue Israel, run to America, and/or register for work in the Berlin Zirkus, a prestigious carnival helmed by the Nazi and musical prodigy Franz (Franz Rogowski), whose twelve fingers and clairvoyant powers make him somewhat of a freak himself. Franz, however, provides the surprising emotional nucleus (in comparative terms) to Freaks vs. The Reich where his four guests do not; his ether addiction allows him to traverse space-time, to see the future, witness Hitler’s downfall, sketch out iPhones and fidget spinners upon return, and set himself the prophecy of enslaving our four heroes so that they may save the Third Reich from imminent collapse.

To its credit, Freaks vs. The Reich frequently indulges in grotesquely irreverent caricature, pitting faithful aphorisms against the bombast of battle, gleefully killing fascists, butchering rapists, valorizing the army of crippled partisans whose care Matilde finds herself under after a close skirmish with the enemy. But what’s crucially missing from this irreverence is a larger sense of purpose — employing it to examine contemporary attitudes towards disability, for example, or to experiment with grandiose ideas about predestination and free will. Much of the film plays it safe to crowd-pleasing retrospection: it is neither riotous nor self-aware enough to engender any more than the self-congratulatory wonder so emblematic of Naziploitation (a most prominent example, however, remains 2019’s Disneyfication atrocity, Jojo Rabbit). Mainetti’s tepid moralism, stretched out across a tedious 141-minute runtime, overstays its welcome very quickly — even before Franz belts out a raucous interprétation de piano of “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and passes that off for the viewer as cheap thrill, there’s already a deadening atmosphere courtesy of the troupe’s listless antics, in addition to Matilde’s stubborn refusal to do anything but whine and risk the lives of those around her. But if Franz were to be dismissed as cartoonish, Matilde et al. would crystallize the torpidity of the X-Men franchise, further condensing the latter’s semi-ironic, semi-endearing lore into an ethereal dose of magical realism that’s neither exactly magical nor real. It all culminates in a Jean Grey moment of eye-rolling deus ex machina whose bathos gets amped up to eleven given all the preachy blue-balling prior. That’s an achievement in itself, but not necessarily the one we really wanted, or needed a circus troupe situated smack in the middle of Nazi-infested Rome for.